Wisconsin Should Be a Showdown

The case for expecting Clinton to thrive in the green-eyeshade state.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

On the night she fell victim to Potomac primary fever, Hillary Clinton was in El Paso, Texas. Her campaign promised that the Lone Star State, along with Ohio, would make March 4 the day Obamamentum was stopped in its tracks.

No mention of Wisconsin, where Barack Obama was that night and where the last primary before the March 4 showdown will be held on Tuesday. * Why not?

Judging by the state’s demographics and by its political history, Wisconsin ought to be prime territory for a strong Clinton showing. Indeed, its potential for Hillary is so promising that it’s worth pondering whether the “on to Texas and Ohio!” battle cry of her campaign might be one huge head fake, designed to turn a strong Clinton showing—much less a victory—into one of those “Oh my God, what a shocker!” reactions that changes the whole tenor of the political conversation. Clinton is spending three days in Wisconsin before the vote, but her campaign says that’s to ensure she gets as many delegates as possible, avoiding the kind of blowout that has cost her in the delegate count since Super Tuesday.

Obama is supposed to win Wisconsin because it’s the home of modern progressivism, not to mention a perennially juiced-up student population and ground zero for the kind of “challenge to the system” campaign that Obama exemplifies. Well, yes and no. It’s true that Madison—the home of the University of Wisconsin, where I more or less studied some time ago—is a town that appears at times to search the world for sister-city compacts it can form with leftist nations. And Wisconsin is the state that, a century ago, Gov. and then Sen. Robert La Follette turned into a laboratory for ideas like workers’ compensation and the income tax that helped inspire the New Deal.

But that’s only one side of the state. At the end of the 20th century, Wisconsin’s principal political ideas were tax cuts, school choice, and welfare reform, championed by long-serving Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. The state has been far more purple than blue in recent presidential elections: Gore beat Bush by only 5,000 votes in 2000; four years later, John Kerry edged out Bush by 1 percent of the vote.

Even within the Democratic Party, there’s more complexity than unvarnished liberalism. Sen. Herbert Kohl votes a moderate-to-liberal line, according to the Almanac of American Politics; he supported the Bush tax cuts in 2001. Russ Feingold is rightly regarded as an ardent liberal on matters such as civil liberties and foreign policy, but he’s also a deficit hawk and has angered liberals with votes to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general and John Roberts as chief justice. (And remember Sen. William Proxmire, who during his long service from the late 1950s to the late 1980s invented the “Golden Fleece” awards for wasteful federal spending projects—the sort of award more likely to warm the hearts of the Chamber of Commerce than the AFL-CIO.) That kind of green-eyeshade liberalism seems well-suited to a figure like Clinton, who stresses her credentials as a detail-oriented, policy-wonk problem solver.

In Wisconsin, according to exit polls from the 2004 presidential primary, 57 percent of the voters called themselves moderates or conservatives. Seventy-five percent had incomes of $75,000 a year or less; 50 percent earned less than $50,000 a year. A third of the voters were Catholic. More than half had no college education and more than one in five were union members. This is the kind of electorate Clinton is counting on in Ohio and, in April, in Pennsylvania, because it’s the electorate that favored her up until Obama’s big victories in Maryland and Virginia.

True, there are countervailing factors. Wisconsin is a wide-open primary, and with John McCain now the presumptive nominee, independent and Republican crossovers may weigh in on the Democratic side of the ticket. (They made up nearly 30 percent of the 2004 primary vote.) Obama has the support of Gov. Jim Doyle and—perhaps more significant—the support of longtime Rep. David Obey, originally a John Edwards backer. Obey has been one of the strongest voices against the free-trade policies that so anger the unions.

But if the hopes of Sen. Clinton rest on the votes of white working-class voters, Wisconsin ought to be fertile ground for a campaign reset. Conversely, if Obama can produce another February blowout—in a primary state with a tiny African-American population—that will tell us something as well. After all, if Clinton cannot rally the beer-drinking Democrats in the state that gave us Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller, where can she?

Correction, Feb. 15, 2008: The original sentence wrongly said the Wisconsin primary would take place next Wednesday. (Return to the corrected sentence.)